|Alawites consider themselves Shia and are among the largest minorities in Syria in addition to Christians, among others[GALLO/GETTY]
When I asked a Greek-Orthodox Christian Syrian man in Bab-Toma, Damascus, if he agreed with Bashar Al-Assad's socio-political policies he responded that he did not support Assad's oppressive security apparatus, but under his rule he and his family were able to freely attend church mass each Sunday and celebrate Christian holidays like Christmas each year. He followed up by saying that he had no assurance that any other sect in Syria would protect the Syrian-Christian community.
In Syria there exists a diverse set of communities strongly bonded by language, region, religion, and ethnicity. The Sykes-Picot Agreement, the secret deal reached between the colonial British and French during World War I, partitioned the Middle East based on British and French interests rather than the interests of those living in Syria.
The result of the arbitrary divisions made the newly formed Syrian nation a highly ethnically and religiously diverse society - without establishing the governing institutions to harmoniously facilitate such a society. This arrangement led to decades of civil war and coup d'états in Syria until the iron-fisted Assad regime rose to power.
Comprising Sunni Muslims, Christians, Alawites, Druze and Ismaelites, in no other country in the Middle East, except for Lebanon, do such a multiplicity of religious and ethnic groups co-exist. The Alawites or Nusayris, who number about 2,400,000, constitute Syria's largest religious minority.
They mainly live along the coast in Latakia province, where they form more than 40 per cent of the rural population (the provincial capital, Latakia, itself is largely Sunni).
The second largest minority are the Christians. Christian communities of Syria, which comprise about 10 per cent of the population, hail from both the Roman-Catholic and Protestant traditions. With the exception of the Armenians, most Christians in Syria are ethnically Arab. Syrian Christians are generally urbanites; many live either in or around Damascus, Aleppo, Hama, or Latakia. In general, they are more urbanised than Muslims and they are in relatively higher income brackets.
The Druze community constitutes five per cent of the population, making them the country's third largest religious minority. The overwhelming majority of Druze reside in Jabal al Arab, a rugged and mountainous region in southwestern Syria.
Additionally, Syria has a very small Arabic-speaking Jewish community, as well as Yazidis who primarily live in the Jazirah and in Aleppo.
After Syria gained independence in 1946, the various sects and groups living in the region (specifically in Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Sweida and Latakia) attempted to gain power to protect their economic and legal rights. Sunni Aleppines competed for dominance with Sunni Damascenes in commercial and political life. The Druze remained solely loyal to the Druze, the Kurds to the Kurds, and tribal peoples to tribal institutions.
Alawites, the largest minority group, rebelled against Sunni-Muslim control.
In the 1950s, there existed ten different cabinets with several coups and countercoups with four different constitutions. Syrian minorities were constantly insecure and frequently subjected to prosecution. The short-lived, pre-Assad regimes were mostly Sunni dominated and there was no considerable governmental protection provided to the Druze, Christian, Shias, Jews, and Alawites.
In Syria, the Paris mandatory administration imposed a confessional system of parliamentary representation similar to that in Beirut, in which specific number of seats were allocated to Sunnis, Christians, Kurds, Druzes, Alawites, Circassians, Turkomans, and Jews. These ethnic and religious groups were guaranteed around 25 per cent of the parliament's 142 seats.
Minority groups also protested what they believed to be an infringement on their legal and political rights. In 1950, they successfully prevented efforts by the Sunni Muslim president to declare Islam the official state religion of Syria. However, a 1953 bill finally abolished the communal system of parliamentary representation introduced by the French. Additionally, subsequent legislation eliminated separate jurisdictional rights in matters of personal and legal status which the French granted to certain minority groups during the French Mandate.
Successive Syrian administrations, including those of the Amin al-Hafez, Shokri al-Ghowatli and Shishkali governments, have attempted to create a unified Syrian national identity by eliminating the centrifugal effects of sectarianism. Despite these efforts, Syria's post-independence history was replete with conflict between minority groups and the central government - until President Hafez al-Assad came to power.
To protect his sect, Assad implemented laws and policies to secure all minorities from the rule of any religious-majority ideology. The Baath party heavily opposed any inclusion of religion in matters of state. This policy against the rule-of-majority ideology culminated in the bloody 1982 massacre which aimed at eliminating the threat of the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement strongly opposed to Assad's radically secular and socialist regime.
The secular socialism of the ruling Ba'ath (Arab Socialist Resurrection) Party de-emphasised Islam as a component of Syrian and Arab nationalism. However, Ba'ath ideology prescribed that non-Muslims respect Islam as their "national culture".
In general, the Alawite communities in Latakia and Damascus, aside from key positions held by Alawites in the Syrian army, hold an important key to change. However, the Alawites will need assurance that their communities will be secure if they are to join forces with Sunni Muslim activists opposing the Assad regime.
Alawite religious and community leaders have attempted to reach out to Sunni religious figures - including leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood - in the past few months, to obtain assurances that their security and well-being will be protected in a post-Assad era.
It is crucial that the Sunni opposition offer such promises, which would encourage the Alawites to join the revolt en masse.
If the Sunni majority is to be able to reassure the Alawites and the other minorities - who believe they need the regime's protection - that they will not be subjected to acts of vengeance after Assad, their participation could significantly strengthen the revolution.
Sunni religious and political leaders can save Syria from a potential sectarian-ethnic war.
Two questions remain: Can Sunni leaders assure Syrian minorities that they will not face reprisals in a post-Assad Syria? And in doing so,can they prevent the current democratic revolts from descending into civil war?
Majid Rafizadeh is an Iranian/Syrian Fulbright teaching scholar, currently conducting research at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He is a columnist for Harvard International Review.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.